Ability Word To Your Mother

Posted in Making Magic on July 28, 2008

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

Writing a weekly column is a pretty daunting task. Sometimes I like to think of my column as a hungry monster that I have to constantly feed (with words, hmm... a Lexivore). What always fascinates me is how from week to week I find inspiration from different sources. This week’s column was inspired by the article thread on someone else’s column. On July 4th, in Latest Developments, Devin Low had a column entitled When Mana Symbols Attack, where he previewed Eventide‘s first chroma card, Light from Within. The seventh post in the thread was by Pegaweb (whose name might be familiar if you ever spent time reading the mammoth Great Designer Search thread—currently the longest thread on the magicthegathering.com response forums), which said the following:

Chroma should not be keyworded.

The “input” of the mechanic can be mana symbols anywhere, and the “output” can be anything. It’s too varied.

The idea of mechanics is that the player becomes familiar with that mechanic. This means the designer can use this new and complicated ability repeatedly, because the player only has to learn it once. Most mechanics don’t vary all that much.

Putting the word “Chroma” on the card doesn’t tell the player anything at all. (Other than that the card is related to the number of some mana symbols somewhere.) The player still has to learn each chroma card separately. It’s like Lieges having a “liege” ability word, or Wizened Cenn and Merrow Reejerey having a “lord” ability word.

This idea should’ve been restricted, and turned into a proper mechanic, or not keyworded at all.

What followed was a healthy debate between Pegaweb and several of the other board members. During this debate there was much quoting of articles I had written talking about keywords and what their role is. While reading this thread (and yes, I read lots of Magic threads including ones not on our site), I realized that I haven’t really talked much about ability words and why we use them. So today’s column is dedicated to ability words and an explanation from me why chroma is an ability word.

Ability Word To The Wise

Sanity_GrindingSo what exactly is an ability word, and how is it different from a keyword? I guess we can begin by checking out the Comprehensive Rules (a.k.a. “The Rules”). Keywords are actually broken into two parts, keyword abilities and keyword actions. Here is how each is defined:

Keyword Ability
Some abilities are very common or would require too much space to define on a card. These abilities list only the name of the ability as a "keyword"; sometimes reminder text summarizes the game rule. See rule 502, "Keyword Abilities."

Keyword Action
Most actions described in a card’s rules text use the standard English definitions of the verbs within, but some specialized verb are used whose meanings may not be clear. These "keywords" are game terms; sometimes reminder text summarizes their meanings. See rule 501, "Keyword Actions."

An ability word, meanwhile is defined as such:

Ability Word
An ability word appears in italics at the beginning of some abilities on cards. Ability words are similar to keywords in that they tie together cards that have similar functionality, but they have no special rules meaning and no individual entries in the Comprehensive Rules.

The list of ability words, updated through the Eventide set, is as follows: channel, chroma, grandeur, hellbent, kinship, radiance, sweep, and threshold.

In more layman’s terms, here’s the difference. A keyword is a word or phrase that is used to substitute for a longer grouping of text. Whenever you see that keyword used it can be substituted one for one every time with the longer text. Keywords do allow variables most often in costing. These variables are always listed separately as the actual keyword does not define them. For example, cycling means you have to pay to cycle the card. Morph means you have to spend to turn the card face up. An example of a non-cost variable would be poisonous from Future Sight. The 3 in poisonous 3 tells you how many poison counters are given to the opponent if the creature damages them.

The separation of keyword abilities from keyword actions (a change that came about recently) was made because the two groupings worked differently even though both shared the definition I gave above. I should point out that there is another way to split keyword abilities / actions. Certain keywords have to be keywords to work, while others do not. To make my example I will use the mechanics flanking and bushido. In case you forgot them, here are the keywords:

Benalish Cavalry
Devoted Retainer

Flanking (Whenever a creature without flanking blocks this creature, the blocking creature gets -1/-1 until end of turn.)

Bushido (When this blocks or becomes blocked, it gets +1/+1 until end of turn.)

Can you see the important difference between them? Bushido works on defense, but that’s not the relevant part. The important part shows up in flanking. It’s the “creature without flanking” section. You see, flanking is self-referential. Flankers don’t flank other flankers. What this means is that the mechanic cannot work without a keyword. Without a keyword to reference, there is no way for the cards to know what they can’t “flank” against. Bushido, on the other hand, could work just fine written out on every card. The flanking mechanics of the world have to be keyworded, while the bushido mechanics are keyworded on a case by case basis. How do we decide when that is? I’ll cover that soon enough.

Some mechanics, though, do not have the luxury of being able to be keyworded. These mechanics are not consistent enough for the direct exchange. Just as we wish to keyword some of the mechanics that don’t need to be keyworded, we also wish to identify mechanics that are incapable of being keywords. This is where ability words come into play. Ability words are a marker that we use to let you know that multiple cards share a similar mechanic. Ability words carry no rules weight. The cards can literally work without them. So ability words do nothing? As far as the rules are concerned, they don’t even need to be on the card. To add insult to injury, they’re even italicized implying that they have more in common with flavor text than rules text. Why do we even bother?

The answer is because they do do something. Several somethings, in fact. What they don’t do is provide mechanical relevance, because they have none. Ability words aren’t on the card to provide rules support. They are there for other purposes. Such as? I’m glad you asked.

#1 – They Connect Cards

One of the lessons I’ve learned again and again is that the players don’t see cards as I see cards. I look at Magic cards through a designer’s eyes. I’m looking for underlying connections and synergies. I’m looking at overall balance and weight. My cousin Neil is a horse veterinarian. One day he said that he could no longer just watch a horse run. His training made it impossible for him not to evaluate the condition of the horse when he watched it running. I feel the same way about Magic cards. It’s very hard for me to just experience a card unto itself. I’ve been trained not to just “watch it run.”

The reason I bring this up is that I’ve learned that players will not see things that are obvious to me as a designer. My favorite example (and one I’ve used before for readers with good memories) is the design of the “cycling from play” cards in Urza’s Destiny. One of the block mechanics from Urza’s Saga was cycling, and I was looking to find my own twist for Urza’s Destiny. Because I was also playing around with “leaves play” effects, I stumbled upon the idea of having cards that “cycled from play,” that is, cards that you could pay and sacrifice to draw a card. The design handoff had more than actually made it through development, but eight cards actually saw print: Brass Secretary, Capashen Standard, Heart Warden, Illuminated Wings, Marker Beetles, Plague Dogs, Slinking Skirge, and Yavimaya Elder.

Brass Secretary
Yavimaya Elder

Eight cards in a one hundred and forty-three card set is not insignificant. It’s over 5% of the set. The cards each cost exactly to activate, just like every cycling card in the block. All the cards also exactly draw you a card, just like all the cycling cards in the block. How many people realized that these cards “cycled from play”? Just about no one. In fact, when I previously mentioned this in one of my columns, I discovered how many R&D members had no idea what I had done. I specifically remember talking with Randy Buehler about how odd it was that so few people seemed to have caught it. Randy laughed and said, “Until I read your article, I had no idea.”

The other classic example (and again by classic I mean that I’ve talked about it before) is Mercadian Masques. The set had no keyword mechanics, and we were inundated with people asking us why the set had no new mechanics. The point I want to make is this: many players don’t tend to see connection unless we make an effort to point them out. Sometimes we do that through names. Sometimes through art. Occasionally, we’ll even have flavor text help out. When we want to make sure that players recognize a pattern, we’ve learned that we have to highlight it.

I should stress that we don’t draw attention to every connection. Some of the connections are just there to make the set feel right, and we’re not as concerned if the players actively notice it (plus everything is always discovered by someone). But when we want to make sure that a connection gets noticed, it needs a label. When the mechanic in question can be keyworded, we keyword it. When it can’t be keyworded, we try other means. Ability words are the best tool to do so in the text box.

#2 – They Provide a Name

Another important reason for ability words is the importance of putting a name on something. Yes, players will invent a name if we don’t, but then we have no control over what that name is. The best example of this came about in Visions. In it, we had a number of creatures with “comes into play” abilities. Three of them (Man-o’-War, Nekrataal, and Uktabi Orangutan) proved to be tournament staples. Unfortunately, we hadn’t made any effort to name the ability. We didn’t even come up with an official nickname like we often do for mechanics that aren’t connected on the cards (we now refer to them as “comes into play” abilities). Thus, the player base came up with their own nickname: 187 creatures. 187 is the numeric code used by California law enforcement officials to refer to the crime of murder, because murder is defined in Section 187 of the California Penal Code. This nickname came about because the three highest profile “comes into play” creatures all destroyed something. Trust me when I say that we’d rather not have defining nicknames refer to major felonies.

Having a name goes beyond merely allowing the players to have a shared vocabulary. It also allows things such as the ability to look up a subsection of cards on Gatherer or be able to have writers talk about it when discussing the set in articles. As someone who has studied words, I understand their power. Having a name is not a trivial matter.

#3 – They Add Flavor

Back in February of 2003, I wrote a column entitled Bursting with Flavor. In it I talked about how fundamental flavor is to Magic. Every time we find a way to take some mechanical aspect and imbue it with flavor (without sacrificing the function of the mechanical aspect), we are enhancing the game. I will admit that the flavor is not the driving force behind ability words, but it is a nice fringe benefit.

#4 – They Help Us Market the Set

Design’s main responsibility is creating awesome cards, sets, and blocks. That said, we have a pretty important secondary responsibility: making sure the sets can be marketed and sold. We’ve experimented with sets whose primary message has been “I know this doesn’t sound so exciting, but trust us, when you play it, it’s really cool and it plays great,” and we learned the hard way that it’s not enough to make something that makes players happy once they play it. We also have to make something that makes players want to play it.

This is a big part of the role of ability words. It turns a bunch of similar cards into a single element that can be highlighted and sold. As you will see in a moment, this is one of the biggest reasons we use ability words.

Chroma Chameleon

Chaotic Backlash
Now we can examine why chroma in particular got an ability word. For starters, I’ll let you know that all through design and most of development, chroma had no keyword or ability word. We had talked about it numerous times, but decided that it wasn’t needed. Then as the set was being finalized, I did a final pass (even when I’m not on a development team I always keep an eye on sets, especially ones for which I lead the design) and I realized something was missing.

I liked retrace, but it had drifted away from the block’s central “color matters” theme. Plus, the more I looked at the chroma cards, the more I realized that they had little tying them together other than the “counting mana symbols” aspect. The chroma cards were in all different card types. Their creative elements varied a bit. There was nothing really pulling them together. I knew the lack of a name and a directed focus would keep us from pushing what I felt was one of the coolest aspects of the set That’s when I went up to Matt Place (Eventide‘s lead developer) and said, “I think we need to keyword the ‘count me’s.’“ (“Count me” was design’s nickname for chroma. Note that I use the term “keyword” colloquially and actually meant “ability word”.)

I understood that the ability word was an odd choice in that the mechanic is more varied than most other mechanics we’ve granted an ability word. To quote Pegaweb, chroma has a “varied input and output”—that is, the cards don’t all look in the same place and don’t all do the same thing based on the number of mana symbols they find. That said, the mechanic does have a heart to it. These cards all count mana symbols. Other than the Future Sight preview Phosphorescent Feast (which shows up again in Eventide), there is no other card in the history of Magic that does what these cards do. The cards are unique and very much have a strong connection. Grouping them together is not odd. They have one major thing in common that defines what the mechanic is.

The reason I pushed for the ability word is pretty straight-forward. I thought about how the set was going to be perceived. I’ll write a whole column on this one day, but a designer cannot just worry about what a set is; he or she has to worry about how the audience will see it. Perception shapes reality. If we don’t highlight elements we want the public to notice, we are being negligent in our job.

In the case of Eventide, I liked how retrace and chroma felt together. But in order for the public to even think about them in the same light, we had to put them on equal footing. In addition, I felt like chroma wanted the spotlight because it was something fresh the set had to offer. Much of Eventide is just mirroring what Shadowmoor set up. I wanted the players to see that the set also had some innovation of its own. To do this we needed to use an ability word.

Spitting Image

Have we pushed into new territory with what ability words can do with chroma? Yes, but then, in a game that constantly reinvents itself, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. To keep coming up with new ideas, the designers are going to have to dig into the untouched design areas of the game. These won’t necessarily all fit neatly into the preestablished definitions. As ability words are the ultimate catch-all, their definition is the one most destined to shift over time.

So why did chroma get an ability word? Because it was the best way to do what needed to be done.

That’s all I got for today. Join me next week when we get to peek in after the party.

Until then, may you think of all the names you’ve given to the things you hold dear.

Mark Rosewater

Bonus Section: Mimic Week!

Last week, all of the site’s authors were scrambled, and every article was attributed to a mysterious figure known only as The Mimic. (Click The Mimic’s name to read last week’s articles, if you missed them.)

Last week’s articles have all been updated with the answers in hidden text at the bottom, but if you want to know all the answers at once, click here.

Monday’s feature article was written by Eventide designer / developer Kenneth Nagle!

Making Magic was written by House of Cards columnist Chris Millar!

Serious Fun was written by Limited Information author Steve Sadin!

Limited Information was written by The Week That Was author Brian David-Marshall!

Taste the Magic was written by Making Magic author and Magic head designer Mark Rosewater. Special thanks are due to interviewee Jeremy Jarvis!

Building on a Budget was written by magicthegathering.com Editor in Chief Scott Johns!

Swimming with Sharks was written by Latest Developments author and Magic head developer Devin Low!

House of Cards was written by Building on a Budget author Ben Bleiweiss!

Latest Developments was written by Taste the Magic author Doug Beyer!

The Week That Was was written by Swimming with Sharks author Mike Flores!

Head to the Mimic Week thread thread if you want to talk about the answers.

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